Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.

Texas Arbitration Provision Sounds Death Knell For Illinois Salesman’s Suit Against Former Employer – IL ND

(“Isn’t that remarkable…..”)

The Plaintiff in Brne v. Inspired eLearning, 2017 WL 4263995, worked in sales for the corporate publisher defendant.  His employment contract called for arbitration in San Antonio, Texas.

When defendant failed to pay plaintiff his earned commissions, plaintiff sued in Federal court in his home state of Illinois under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“IWPCA”). Defendant moved for venue-based dismissal under Rule 12(b)(3)

The Illinois Northern District granted defendant’s motion and required the plaintiff to arbitrate in Texas.  A Rule 12(b)(3) motion is the proper vehicle to dismiss a case filed in the wrong venue. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s venue choice, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish it filed in the proper district.  When plaintiff’s chosen venue is improper, the Court “shall dismiss [the case], or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a).

Upholding the Texas arbitration clause, the Illinois Federal court noted the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements except when to do so would violate general contract enforceability rules (e.g. when arbitration agreement is the product of fraud, coercion, duress, etc.)

The Court then turned to plaintiff’s argument that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable.  An agreement is substantively unconscionable where it is so one-sided, it “shocks the conscience” for a court to enforce the terms.

The plaintiff claimed the arbitration agreement’s cost-sharing provision and absence of fee-shifting rendered it substantively unconscionable.

Cost Sharing Provision

Under Texas and Illinois law, a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration is prohibitively expensive must provide individualized evidence to show it will likely be saddled with excessive costs during the course of the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs.  The fact that sharing arbitration costs might cut in to a plaintiff’s recovery isn’t enough: without specific evidence that clearly demonstrates arbitration is cost-prohibitive, a court will not strike down an arbitration cost-sharing provision as substantively unconscionable.  Since plaintiff failed to offer competent evidence that he was unable to shoulder half of the arbitration costs, his substantive unconscionability argument failed

Fee-Shifting Waiver

The plaintiff’s fee-shifting waiver argument fared better.  Plaintiff asserted  then argued that the arbitration agreement’s provision that each side pays their own fees deprived Plaintiff of his rights under the IWPCA (see above) which, among other things, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorneys’ fees. 820 ILCS 115/14.

The Court noted that contractual provisions against fee-shifting are not per se unconscionable and that the party challenging such a term must demonstrate concrete economic harm if it has to pay its own lawyer fees.  The court also noted that both Illinois and Texas courts look favorably on arbitration and that arbitration fee-shifting waivers are unconscionable only when they contradict a statute’s mandatory fee-shifting rights and the statute is central to the arbitrated dispute.

The court analogized the IWPCA to other states’ fee-shifting statutes and found the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees section integral to the statute’s aim of protecting workers from getting stiffed by their employers.  The court then observed that IWPCA’s attorney’s fees provision encouraged non-breaching employees to pursue their rights against employers.  In view of the importance of the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees provision, the Court ruled that the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting waiver clashed materially with the IWPCA and was substantively unconscionable.

However, since the arbitration agreement contained a severability clause (i.e. any provisions that were void, could be excised from the arbitration contract), the Court severed the fee-shifting waiver term and enforced the balance of the arbitration agreement.  As a result, plaintiff must still arbitrate against his ex-employer in Texas (and cannot litigate in Illinois).

Afterwords:

This case lies at the confluence of freedom of contract, the strong judicial policy favoring arbitration and when an arbitration clause conflicts with statutory fee-shifting language.  The court nullified the arbitration provision requiring each side to pay its own fees since that term clashed directly with opposing language in the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  Still, the court enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement – minus the fee provision.

The case also provides a useful synopsis of venue-based motions to dismiss in Federal court.

 

 

 

 

Commission Payment Terms in Employment Contract Trump Cable Rep’s ‘Procuring Cause’ Claim in Sales Contract Spat – IL Court

I once represented a client who sued his former employer – an energy company – for unpaid commission and bonuses.  Before he hired me, the client filed a pro se administrative claim with the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) to recover the monies.  The DOL found in my client’s favor but could not decide on a specific dollar amount. Several months later, I sued to recover under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) and for breach of contract.  In that case, which settled favorably for us, the employer unsuccessfully argued my client’s prior DOL case precluded our civil Wage Act claim.  The trial court rejected this res judicata argument on the basis that the DOL proceeding was not equivalent to a prior adjudication on the merits.

Borum v. Wideopenwest Illinois, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 141482-U, a two-year old, unpublished decision, presents a similar fact pattern and considers whether an ex-employee’s earlier administrative claim prevents a later civil lawsuit against the same employer for the same claim.  The case also spotlights the interplay between an employment agreement’s payment terms and the procuring cause doctrine in a sales commissions dispute.

Defendant hired plaintiff to prospect for cable customers.  It agreed to pay plaintiff a commission based on customers he signed up.  The defendant’s standard employment contract documented the plaintiff’s commission payment rights: plaintiff earned his commission once a customer signed a right-of-entry agreement with the cable supplier.

After lodging an unsuccessful DOL, plaintiff sued the cable company in state court to recover unpaid sales commissions. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss all counts of the plaintiff’s complaint and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the Court first considered whether the plaintiff’s DOL proceeding barred his civil suit under res judicata or collateral estoppel principles.  Section 14 of the Wage Act authorizes an employee to file either a DOL claim or a civil action, but not both, to recover underpayment damages along with 2% per month of the underpaid amount.

The DOL ruled against the plaintiff.  It found the right-of-entry agreements were not consummated until signed by both a customer and the defendant employer.)

The Court found the DOL hearing was too informal and not “judicial” or “adjudicatory” enough to defeat plaintiff’s later civil suit under the res judicata rule.

Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction.  Collateral estoppel precludes litigation of an issue previously decided in an earlier proceeding.  Res judicata and collateral estoppel can extend to administrative proceedings that are judicial, adjudicatory or quasi-judicial in nature.

So where administrative proceedings involve sworn testimony, are adversarial in nature and include cross-examination of witnesses, they can bar a subsequent civil suit.

Here, since the DOL conducted only an informal hearing with no cross-examination or sworn witnesses, the DOL had no adjudicatory power over the parties and so its finding for defendant had no preclusive effect against the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s procuring cause argument.  Designed to soften the harsh impact of at-will contracts, the procuring cause doctrine allows a departed salesperson to recover commissions on sales he/she consummated before his/her employment ends even where the money isn’t paid to the employer until after the salesperson departs.  The procuring cause rule is only a gap filler though: it’s a default rule that only applies where a contract is silent on when commissions are paid.

Since plaintiff’s contract with defendant specifically provided plaintiff would be paid commissions earned during (but not after) the period of the employment, the court found this specific enough to vitiate the procuring cause rule.

Lastly, the Court considered whether defendant violated its handbook which stated compensation terms could only be changed on 30 days advance notice.  Plaintiff argued that the defendant made a unilateral change to its compensation policy without giving plaintiff the requisite notice.

The key question for the Court was whether the employee manual was an enforceable contract. For an employee handbook to vest an employee with binding contract rights, (1) the handbook promise must be clear enough that an employee reasonably believes and offer has been made, (2) the handbook offer must be distributed to the employee so that he/she actually receives it or is aware of its contents; the (3) the employee must accept the offer by commencing work after learning of the policy statement.

Since the plaintiff conceded he wasn’t aware of the employee manual until the day he was fired, the court found he couldn’t reasonably show the handbook provided him with enforceable contract rights. (¶¶ 83-85).

Bullet-points:

  • Administrative claims can support a res judicata defense but only where the administrative hearing is adversarial (judicial) in nature; such as where witnesses give sworn testimony that can be tested on cross-examination;
  • The procuring cause rule won’t trump specific contract payment terms;
  • A written employer policy on compensation adjustments isn’t binding against an employer where the aggrieved employee isn’t aware of the policy until on or after he/she’s fired.

 

 

 

 

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